What the Heck is Purgatory and what is Dante Doing There?

Of the three books of the Commedia, the Purgatorio is, for English readers, the least known, the least quoted–and the most beloved.

Dorothy Sayers

Defining Purgatory

Fully explaining Purgatory and the thinking behind it is something which no blog can undertake in the course of a single post. So, I’m not going to even attempt to do so. There’s plenty of literature out there for you to draw you own conclusions.

I will, however, encourage you to read Dorothy Sayer’s introduction and summation of Purgatory in her translation. She covers all the bases very nicely.

For a non-religious or an agnostic living in the 21st century, think of Purgatory as a long period of physical, mental, and spiritual transformation. You aren’t condemned for eternity to your mistakes, you are healed from your mistakes, even if that healing takes the form of physical punishment.

Definitions of Ante-Purgatory

Excommunicate (Terrace I)

These are people who were thrown out of the church. I’ve linked a video of a scene from the 1964 film Becket which shows Richard Burton (as Thomas a Becket) excommunicating Henry II. Being excommunicated in Medieval Europe was a big deal.

If you want a 21st century version, think of social media backlashes against celebrities, companies, or influencers who are “cancelled” for undesirable opinions or behaviors.

In Dante’s version of Purgatory, these inhabit Terrace 1–just outside the gate. Much like the Futile of the Vestibule of Hell.

Late-Repentant (Terrace II)

So, repentance is when you turn from doing something and resolve to never do it again. Late-repenters in Dante’s Purgatory are people who turned from their sins at the last minute but not before they were able to do penance for their sins.

When you make a mistake, don’t you want to make up for it? That is exactly what repentance and penance are for Dante. Repentance is recognizing the sin (or mistake), penance is providing restitution for the sin or mistake be that to God or to yourself. That may be in the form of saying a prayer, performing an act of service, or seeking forgiveness from the wronged party.

Indolent (Terrace II, Group 1)

This is procrastination and laziness in the extreme. The indolent in Purgatory are people who had a chance to better their lives and instead of doing the work, they wallowed in their failures without doing anything.

Unshriven (Terrace II, Group 2)

If you’ve read Hamlet, then you have already encountered this. Hamlet’s father died “unshriven” because he was murdered. This group in Purgatory is full of other people who are in the same predicament.

Coincidentally, one of T.S. Eliot’s references in The Waste Land comes from this group.

The Preoccupied (Terrace II, Group 3)

These are people who neglected their spiritual wellness in favor of “worldly” cares. This is perhaps the category a lot of us fall into today.

When was the last time you took a moment for your own spiritual well-being?

What Dante is Doing in Purgatory

In Hell, we saw the worst of humanity. The people there chose their vices over anything else–even over improving themselves and gaining a better life. They saw their faults, and they decided not to do anything about them.

Purgatory is filled with people who saw their faults and weren’t able to completely get rid of them in life. They regretted them nonetheless so now they have the chance, with extra help, to purge themselves.

He’s shown us how bad it really can get, now he’s going to show us how to do the work and become better versions of ourselves.

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